Avis: Messy, awkward and men in cravats – this is speed dating post-lockdown

Avis: Messy, awkward and men in cravats – this is speed dating post-lockdown
You have four minutes to talk to each person in turn, which – depending on the vibe – can either feel like no time at all, or it can feel like 240 long and reverberant, aching seconds

Everyone was talking about the vegan cheese guy.

“Have you met the vegan cheese guy yet?” went the whispers in the toilets – and for good reason, because who wouldn’t want a moniker like that? And that’s the thing about speed dating: when you’re in a room full of attractive, single people, the one thing you need is to stand out. But not as a journalist – nope. Nobody wants to meet a journalist at a speed dating event, precisely for the reason you’re reading this article right now. “I’m not going to tell anyone I’m a journalist,” I vowed to the friend I was with – before immediately telling everyone I was a journalist. Whoops.

In my defence, I didn’t have time to think of a good cover story – and I wasn’t there for work (I really wasn’t, this assignment is an accident) – but to see if I might find romance. Plus, it’s harder than you might expect to think on your feet when you’re meeting someone for the first time; you fall back on social norms, find yourself asking questions like: “What do you do?” and “How was your day?” as if you’re welcoming your spouse home from the office after 25 years of marriage and telling them their dinner is in the kitchen under a hot plate, and why don’t they put their feet up and watch something nice on the telly, and can they believe the garden waste collection was missed for the second week in a row, and we’re really, really going to need to do something about that, David, we really are, because it’s outrageous.

The speed dating stand-outs, bien sûr, were the people who had something unusual to say. I asked one man how his lockdown experience had been overall and he told me his housemate had had a psychotic episode and taken him prisoner – drilling all of the windows and doors shut! Imaginer! I only had time to ask him whether the police had been called (they had) and whether he’d had to climb through a small hole to escape (not sure about his answer because of wine) – but then the whistle was blown and our four minutes were up.

And that’s the truly strange thing about speed dating: you have four minutes to talk to each person in turn, which – depending on the vibe – can either feel like no time at all, or it can feel like 240 long and reverberant, aching seconds, where you find yourself so utterly devoid of anything to say that you scrabble around in the furthest recesses of the long-learnt, ill-practiced (particularly after a year of Covid) social skills area of your brain and find the words, “Do you have any hobbies?” coming out of your mouth, at which point you might as well just give up and stop talking altogether. Just go home.

Because nobody wants to talk about their “hobbies”; we may have “hobbies” but we do not want to appel them “hobbies”, because calling them “hobbies” makes them sound like they are either knitting (no offence, Tom Daley) or stamp-collecting, or jigsaw puzzles. The only thing worse than asking someone what their “hobbies” are is asking someone “what moves them”, which one of my fellow speed daters did to me, and it felt like sitting opposite Liam Neeson, or Ted Hastings from Ligne de conduite. “What moves you?” he asked, his eyes boring into mine. “What are your passions?” Mother of God!

And when I did that old journo trick of turning the question around (“That’s a really interesting question actually, what moves toi?") and the answer was “the gym”, ou alors, “FinTech”, I’m afraid to say I had nothing to offer or to add; I don’t understand the gym – the last time I went to one was in 1999 and I spent the whole time on the exercise bike watching the Hollyoaks omnibus. And when I hear “FinTech” I automatically hear “office things” or “business things” and I fall instantly and irrevocably asleep, and that’s my failing, it really is, and I’m sorry but I just don’t think it’s going to be a love match.

Bring on the weirdos, plutôt: the guy who paints ships with special paint to stop barnacles sticking to them in the arctic! The physicist wearing a bow tie! The Italian man with double pentagram earrings and a cravat who looked like Mick Hucknall! The cheeky 25-year-old electrician who watches Île de l'amour! The guy who described himself as a “former gifted child” and told me within the first 30 seconds of conversation that he’d graduated from high school at 11! The older man who’d just moved over from Dubai who spent the entire four minutes giggling and trying to buy everyone drinks, like a speed dating Father Christmas! The vegan cheese guy!

je, pourtant, had to wait until the very end of the night to meet the latter – because at speed dating, the women stay seated at tables while the men move around the room in one direction, like a flow chart in which your success at the end of the night is determined by “yes”, “no” or the savage and eviscerating determination of “friend”.

The upshot is that a) you get to feel like Beyoncé, with a queue of people waiting patiently to talk to you; and b) everyone gets to know each other, because everyone in the room has talked to each other, so by the end of the night it really fait feel like Love Island – there was a distinct sense of camerarderie (even if it was lacking in romance) and we all ended up having one big party.

And as for the vegan cheese guy? He was lovely. En fait, almost every single person I spoke to was special and interesting in their own unique way – and the best thing about it all was four minutes of fleeting connection with a stranger, after most of us have been in near-complete isolation pour 18 mois.

These moments of conversation and sharing may have been brief, and they may have been commanded by a whistle in this (very surreal and strictly-timed) instance, but they reminded me of what I love most about being human: our messy awkwardness, our collective shyness as we stumble around, trying to be kind, to bond and find friendship and reserve that tiny hope that we might even find something more. Sign me up for round two.

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